OAKLAND (KPIX) — On Saturday, Oct. 19, 1991, a massive wildfire roared through residential areas of Oakland and Berkeley. It became known as the Oakland Hills Firestorm and stood as the most destructive fire in California history. Thirty years later, people who were there met at the Rockridge BART station to remember those who died and talk about lessons learned.
The historic blaze sparked to life on what used to be a vacant lot growing into a small brush fire that crews thought they had put out. But, after they left, the Diablo Winds began howling and smoldering embers became torches. In about an hour 800 houses had burned to the ground. Risa Nye’s home was among them.
“We thought ‘oh, it’s never going to jump the freeway, how could it jump the freeway?’ And then we went home and started throwing stuff in the car,” Nye recalled.
In all, 3.300 homes were destroyed and 25 lives lost, including two first responders.
On Saturday, nearly 30 years later, Oakland leaders gathered at the Rockridge BART Station where a wall of tiles has been erected to memorialize the horror and loss of that epic conflagration.
The blaze was officially known as the Tunnel Fire because of its proximity to the Caldecott Tunnel. The fire started on Oct. 19 and wasn’t fully controlled until Oct. 23.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf remembers, as a young girl, searching the ruins of her home.
“We also found a lump of metal that my dad told me was the silver that he had been looking forward to giving me as a wedding present one day,” the mayor said, her voice trembling.
Don Barker was an Oakland fire captain when the inferno began and was sent to a rally point at the Fairmont Hotel in Berkeley with one simple order
“My instructions were ‘do not let it burn down’ and it didn’t burn down,” Barker said proudly.
Five engine companies protected the hotel, which stands today because of their efforts. Still, fighting the fire was chaotic. There was no coordinated communication between agencies and one fire department’s equipment didn’t fit with others. Current Oakland fire chief Reginald Freeman said a lot of hard lessons were learned that weekend.
“We must all embrace and understand that the response to the fire 30 years ago continues to this day with our prevention efforts,” the chief said.
Now, communities practice fuels reduction and first responders share a common communications system. Fire apparatus has been standardized and modern mutual aid agreements have been established to mobilize resources quickly and with better coordination. As Chief Freeman read names of those who died in the fire, it came with a challenge to those still living.
“In honor of all those we lost, we all have a responsibility to make our community safer, more prepared and more resilient.”
In 1991, a fire so big seemed unimaginable but now they are happening almost yearly. With each one, first responders get a little better, a little smarter but it all started with a wake-up call thirty years ago in the hills above Oakland.